1911 with factory ammo

Handgun Stopping Power

Many organizations, agencies and individuals have developed tests and formulas to rate the effectiveness of defensive handgun cartridges.

By Richard Mann (RSS)
October 21, 2010

In 1904, U.S. Army Capt. John Thompson and Maj. Louis LaGarde shot steer and human cadavers for that purpose. Julian Hatcher, a former technical editor at American Rifleman, based his theory of Relative Stopping Power on this study and concluded the .45 ACP FMJ bullet is twice as effective as a 9 mm FMJ bullet.

In 1975, the National Institute of Justice finalized what it called the Relative Incapacitation Index, which was later updated in 1985. This study was based on hypothetical assumptions and a computer-generated man. The study rated the 115-grain, 9 mm FMJ round twice as effective as a 230-grain, .45 ACP FMJ.


After the tragic 1986 shootout in Miami, the FBI established its own testing methodology using 10-percent ordnance gelatin and various intermediate barriers. It concluded that for law enforcement, the minimum acceptable bullet penetration depth was 12 inches. Essentially, the FBI rated the .45 ACP twice as effective as the 9 mm and considered 147-grain 9 mm bullets much better than 115-grain bullets. Like with all theories, problems exist with the FBI’s methodology. For example, it gives the 9 mm, 115-grain, Cor-Bon +P JHP load a wounding value of zero, seemingly suggesting you are no worse off after one of these bullets hits you between the nipples.

In 1991, a privately funded research group began studying the physiological effects of bullet impact on medium-sized animals. The primary objective was to isolate the physical mechanism responsible for rapid incapacitation of man-sized targets. This became known as what some consider the mythical—meaning, never happened—Strasbourg Tests. Supposedly, 611 goats were terminated, generating 580 valid tests, providing average incapacitation times for the most popular defensive handgun loads at that time.

The Strasbourg Tests had two important findings. First; frangible bullets like the Glaser Safety Slug and hollowpoints that violently expand and transfer a great deal of energy very quickly produce the fastest incapacitation times. Second; when bullets impact ribs—this happens about 50 percent of the time in defensive shootings—incapacitation times are usually increased.

Also in 1991, the Naval Weapons Support Center tested 10 different 9 mm loads, seeking the best hollowpoint for use by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. Along with terminal performance and reliability, accuracy was also evaluated. Unlike the FBI, the NWSC used 20-percent ordnance gelatin because it was determined by the Wound Ballistics Lab at the Letterman Army Institute of Research to offer the best simulation of muscle tissue. With the assumption that penetration beyond 12 inches would be hazardous to bystanders, they concluded Federal’s 147-grain JHP was best. But, the results were heavily weighted by the somewhat impractical reliability function tests in their handguns.

Surprisingly, all Federal agencies do not follow the FBI’s lead with regard to ammo selection. In 1987 the Secret Service also commissioned a study of 9 mm ammunition. It was based on a bullet’s ability to deposit energy in the first 5.9 inches of 20-percent ordnance gelatin. The supporting logic was that the greater the energy deposit, the greater the potential for tissue damage. The best performing 9 mm load in this test was Winchester’s 115-grain +P+ JHP.

All this illustrates how nobody seems to agree on anything, well hardly anything anyway. The problem is, humans cannot resist the urge to rate everything from football teams to members of the opposite sex with numbers. College football fans know how effective the BCS rating system is; top ranked teams are beat by unranked opponents every week and there’s little consensus on whether Britney Spears is a five, eight or 10. Shootings are chaotic events, and numbers cannot effectively value chaos. No matter the criteria, the bias of evaluators always creeps in the equation and anomalies always exist.

Which study do you believe? What cartridge/load do you select? You can do the research and conduct your own tests. I have, and I strongly encourage it because you will learn stuff. I even have my own theory, but guess what? It’s no more valid than any of the others. Some cartridges and bullets are better than others and we will continue to examine those differences in this column. Still, there is nothing wrong with a practical approach, consistent with the doctrine: Keep it hillbilly simple. Here are three rules that reflect that mindset.

Rule No. 1: Carry the largest caliber, highest-capacity handgun you can comfortably conceal on a daily basis.

Rule No. 2: Load it with flawlessly functioning ammunition, utilizing an expanding/fragmenting bullet, delivering high energy levels for your cartridge.

Rule No. 3: Prove you can use that combination to put six shots in a 10-inch circle at 10 feet in less than 3 seconds.

For further reading check out “Handgun Stopping Power,” “Street Stoppers” and “Stopping Power” by Evan Marshall and Ed Sanow. The philosophy of Marshall and Sanow is that the best way to evaluate handgun stopping power is by looking at actual street results. You may not agree with their findings, but the information on cartridges and bullets, various testing methodologies and the very interesting tales from the street are worth the price of admission. All three books are available from Paladin Press and are packed with plenty of statistics, data and photos to help you argue about what’s best with ballisticians, blowhards and bullet geeks like me.

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7 Responses to Handgun Stopping Power

  1. juan v pardo says:

    He leido y analizado metodicamente este comentario referente a calibres y balistica, con algunos aspectos concuerdo con otros no, pero aqui les dejo mi imprecion de conocimiento basado en ser tirador de 9mm y 45 acp, y a mas por ser mi trabajo diario. Lo primero q, debe de saberla persona armada o agente de la ley es el teatro de operaciones sobre el cual va a actuar y en concordancia con eso saber q, tipo de municiones va a utilizar, sinembargo existen teatros de operaciones de caracter estandart,como el diario de cada ofical de seguridad o policia,en los terminos de utilizar armas 9mm es conveniente usar poblaciones de los 124gr +p debido a su rapides caracteristicas de impacto y penetracion,esto en conjugacion con la medida del barrel del arma, no es recomendable usar granos de los 115gr en armas con longitud de barrel de 5 inch o 5.5 inch y si en armas con medidas de barrel inferiores a estas.En los casos del calibre 45acp,un grano muy efectivo para el enforzamiento de la ley y la defensa personal es el de 185gr+p,por su rapides y poder de impacto o frenado, esto para cualquier longitud de barrel de armas de este calibre.No obstante y tal como lo exige la ley y a su vez la ley de la logica y la balistica, no es recomendable estar sujetos a un solo tipo de grano en el cumplimiento del deber, esto puede limitar la efectividad de los disparos y sus efectos, tanto en un calibre como en otro,En los casos del 147gr es un proyectil que se concidera pesado en la poblacion de los 9mm pero a su vez es 2 veces mas rapido y efectivo q. un 45acpa una corta y mediana distancia en los FMJ su poder de perforacion a distancias que varian de las 25 a 40 yards, pero si son mas efectivos en distancias que un 45acp a la misma distancia, en contradiccion a esto el 147gr JHP, tiene un poder de perforacion y de frenado al impacto incalculable, mas no es recomendable hacer disparos a mas de 30 yards si se quiere lograr un efecto optimo con esta bala debiendo de recordar que poseemucha menos dinamica que su hermana la 147gr FMJ. El todo de la balistica de impacto radica en formulas matematicas que contemplan como aspectos fundamentales los parametros de la balistica interior de cada arma, los que no son iguales en ningunos de sus aspectos y esto en dependencia del arma y sus caracteristicas de disparo o designacion, otro aspectoes la distancia, otro es el tipo de proyectil que se dispara, su designacion y caracteristicas y por ultimo es el tipo de blanco a batir sus caracteristicas fisicas y corporales en lo que juega un papel fundamental el tamano y el peso del mismo.Por lo tanto soy de la opinion del uso de granos intermedios en busca de una proporcion lo mas equitativa posible entre velocidad y frenado al impacto y segun mi experiencia en la 9mm es que recomiendo el 124gr+P, bien sea FMJ o JHP y mi preferidos por los resultados obtenidos tan maravillozamente satisfactorios son WINCHESTER RANGER T-147GR JHP y el WINCHESTER ELITE 124GR+P BONDED y como las FMJ la NATO 124GR FMJ. Pido disculpas si con mi comentario pueda haber alguien en desacuerdo o no simpatice con mi opinion o esta contradiga el criterio de alguna u otra persona especialisada en los terminos de balistica en sus diferentes ramas.Cualquier opinion puede hacermela saber a travez de mi e-mail juanvpardo@yahoo.com gracias NRA, Les agradezco, admiro y respeto mucho. JUAN 1.1

  2. You just used a lot or words to tell me absolutely nothing. It you’re going to state a problem, at least offer a solution even if it is your own assessment. Make a decision and state your beliefs. Nothing is more irritating that reading a full article that ends with “well, nobody knows”. We have the technology to prove you wrong. “GO 10MM”!

  3. Dale Morigeau says:

    I think it was a big mistake when the millitary changed to 9mm. I carry a .45 long colt. The 45 has proven its self over and over again. Guess they just could not leave a good thing alone.

  4. D.L. Thomas (Life Member) says:

    It is interesting that studies of real life shootings favor fast moving bullets. In their book “Shooting to Live” Fairbairn and Sykes document the relative ineffectiveness of ball ammunition in a .45 ACP while the fast moving (1400 fps) 7.63 Mauser was devastating as a stopper. Most studies validate their real world observations on live targets. My own journey with this issue (while a .45 user) began when it occurred to me that people were assigning a stopping power to the .45 that not even a 30-06 can achieve. As I began to study, both in shooting animals while hunting, shooting various objects, and reading, I found I had to change my mind and go with the actual findings, rather than my feelings.
    I am not sure whether it is all energy, however, that makes faster moving bullets so effective. The 7.63 Mauser is fast, but has less energy than a 9mm due to less bullet weight. I have pondered that velocity may have something to do with the matter, though I am uncertain how. It is interesting to see the wake pushed out from a fast moving bullet, however. As a case in point, a .223 is a wonderfully effective round with a 55 to 69 grain bullet. It out performs other cartridges with less velocity. The .257 Weatherby is known as a remarkably effective round, even on large animals. It seems that bullets that get close to a threshold velocity of 1400 fps or faster are becoming more and more effective as the velocity increases. The .357 Magnum is a good example. I would not hesitate to use this as an outdoor cartridge in the lower 48 over a .44 Special or .45 ACP. Today there are 9mm cartridges that equal or break 1400 fps with 115 grain bullets.
    The jury is still out, but if a fast moving bullet penetrates enough to reach the vitals it seems that it will be more effective than a slow moving bullet.

  5. michael sharpe says:

    Good observation. We must have enough prenetration to damage vitals. I too noticed that game animals were not pushed in the direction of the bullet path when hit with rifles..Nerves are impossible to intentionally target. Shut down the blood pump or both lungs and move. Adrenals work good and bad-account for it.

  6. michael sharpe says:

    Ainmal test means very little unless the gun is to be used for that defense. Some are mean. I can put one round thru both lungs of a four legged animal-not so on a human. You must fire at least two shots, so practice this. Most things shot have seconds of life in them, so practice for that too. 1 lung .45, or both lungs .9mm ? You decide.